THE HOT DOG, that all-American food, has enjoyed a bad press of late: Critics contend it contains too much fat, too much salt, sodium nitrite. Now the hot dog has taken center stage in a controversy over the school lunch program.
What seems to be at issue are two thick, how-to manuals published by the Department of Agriculture: "Menu Planning Guide for School Food Service" and "Food Buying Guide for School Food Service." What really is at issue is of much greater interest to most people: Whether or not the Dietary Guidelines put out by the federal government survive industry and congressional criticism.
The menu and buying guides have been sent to schools for over 30 years and until now had gone unnoticed. After all, who, other than someone responsible for school meals, would voluntarily read such a book? But this year the guides have made some changes based on Dietary Guidelines.
There is one suggestion to "replace processed meats such as frankfurters and bologna with fresh or frozen lean meat, poultry and fish," and another to "serve more poultry and fish and less processed meat, pork and beef," in order to reduce fat and salt consumption.
In one instance examples of a good menu and bad menu are given. Hot dogs are on the bad menu.
This has the American Meat Institute worried. And it has constituents of Senators Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) and Thomas Eagleton (D-Mo.) writing angry letters.
According to the American Meat Institute: the manuals ". . . would substantially impact on the agricultural sector by discouraging the purchase of particular foods represented in the four food groups."
AMI accused the Agriculture Department of trying "to reshape and reorient the breakfast and lunch programs in a major way -- with profound implications for the food industry as well as for consumers."
"Baloney," says Margaret Glavin to the charges. Galvin, USDA Deputy Administrator for Special Nutrition, is one of the people responsible for the revised manuals that have the beef and pork as well as milk and canned vegetable industries, at least according to Senators Talmadge and Eagleton, jumping up and down.
Both senators have put pressure on USDA to withdraw the manuals until they are revised to remove language their contituencies, pork and beef producers in particular, feel are offensive. And Eagleton has said that the U.S. Dietary Guidelines, on which the manuals are based, have gone too far in telling Americans what they ought to eat. During a hearing this summer he told USDA they would have to stop distributing the Guidelines unless they altered some of the language in them.
Because of the reaction of the food and menu guides school administrators around the country are without instructions for implementing the new school lunch regulations, designed to eliminate plate waste while reducing the salt, fat and sugar content of the meals. Some are resorting to last year's model, which means the government's efforts to save money and improve the nutritional quality of the meals will have to wait a little longer.
Galvin says the only substantial change made in the manuals has to do with hot dogs. Until USDA ran new analyses on the hot dogs, the regulations said that one hot dog filled the requirement for a 2-ounce serving of lean meat. Nutrient analyses showed that in order to fulfill that requirement, either two hot dogs must be served or a single hot dog in combination with some other protein source such as cheese or beans.
Whether or not the new government suggestions are accurate does not play a roll in the argument. Or according to one of the experts who helped prepare the revised manuals, Dorothy Van Egmond, director of school food service in Fairfax County: "Something is either high in fat or not high in fat. I don't see it as one way or another, but I'm not a politician and I wouldn't make a very good one."
In its letter to Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland, the American Meat Institute wrote: "By attempting to eliminate or drastically reduce the use of processed meats and other food products in the breakfast and lunch programs. oUSDA is increasing the possibility that school children will not obtain the necessary levels of energy as well as particular nutrients such as Vitamin B12 that are so prominently contained in meats."
For "energy" read calories, particularly fat calories. Fat provides 9 calories per gram; protein and carbohydrates provide 4. Processed meats are hardly the only source of Vitamin B12. All meats, fish, eggs and milk contain B12. In addition processed meats contain anywhere from 30 percent fat (hot dogs) to 50 percent fat (bologna) and enormous quantities of sodium: 3 ounces of hot dog or bologna or similar luncheon meats have over 1,000 milligrams, which is more than half of what many nutritionists say is the daily need of the average person. For someone who has a family history of hypertension even that is too much.
In addition to the furor of the meat processors, there are other complaints about the language of the manuals, all of which Glavin finds "very unfortunate. The kind of complaints that have been made," she says," are not the real issue. The real issue is whether or not there ought to be Dietary Guidelines."
Many people in and out of government feel the guidelines, already under fire from affected segments of the food industry, are being attacked through the school food service manuals. Says Ellen Haas of Community Nutrition Institute, "If you get rid of the guidelines, you lose your rationale for what you do in government feeding programs. The secretaries of agriculture of several states have tried to get the Dietary Guidelines pulled. It's all linked together," she says.
Glavin is willing to accept full responsibility for the brouhaha over the manuals. We set ourselves up because of poor wording," she said.
"Poor wording" means having used a phrase such as "Controlling fat, sugar and salt" instead of "moderating fat . . . " Or entitling a list "food ingredients that should be controlled," that contains foods high in fat, salt and sugar such as "butter, lard, table salt, sugars, molasses."
The entire appendix to the menu planning guide, which explains how to modify the amount of salt, sugar and fat in meals, has been withdrawn and will be redone "more diplomatically" according to Glavin, "more like the Dietary Guideline language."
"We could have gotten the same message across by using a word like 'select' instead of 'do not,'" Glavin said.
Had Carol Foreman, assistant Agriculture secretary, seen the manuals before they were distributed, outsiders says there might have been nothing to criticize. Because of some "management screwup," Foreman said, the material "never came to my desk for review."
Observers pointed out that Foreman, who has a reputation as a consummate politician, would probably have picked up on the wording and examples which have given the meat industry an excuse for demanding the changes be subject to public comment before they are implementes. That is why USDA has agreed to withdraw them, rather than face a court fight and possibly lose the battle to keep Dietary Guidelines in circulation.